Illini Look to Raise the Bar in 2007
Aug. 29, 2007
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Head Coach Wendel McRaven and the Fighting Illini men's cross country team are set to host the annual Illini Challenge this Friday, August 31, at the U of I Arboretum in Urbana, Ill. The Orange and Blue look to capture their third consecutive Challenge title against Marquette, Bradley, Illinois State, and Danville Area Community College. This year's race will be a distance of 6K. Sophomore Jeremy Stevens set the 6K course record at the Arboretum last year with a time of 18:11.8, in the Illini Open. Two weeks later at the Illini Challenge, Stevens again led the way with a first place finish, as Illinois swept the top seven places in route to the team title.
"The Illini Challenge is a dress rehearsal to see where our guys are at in the beginning of the season," said McRaven. "This meet is a chance to break up the monotony of the training period. The Challenge is an opportunity for our returning guys to see how their strides and improvements since the track season have paid off. It's also a chance for us to see where our newcomers are at early in the season."
The women's race time is set for 5 p.m. with the men following at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. The Orange and Blue will take a weekend off before heading to the Illinois Intercollegiate in Normal, Ill. on September 14.
As the Illini begin the season this week, here's a look at what's to come from the 2007 Fighting Illini squad...
When head coach Wendel McRaven came to the University of Illinois three years ago, he had two main goals: to get Illinois in the top half of the Big Ten and to qualify for nationals as a team. This season those goals remain, and McRaven, now entering his third season at the helm of the Illinois men's cross country team, is starting to see the pieces fall into place.
"Continued progress and change in the right direction is what I see happening now," McRaven said. "The biggest thing I wanted to do was change the culture of the program and I'm starting to see that come together. There is a high level of expectations on the team for the younger guys, and we've got older guys on the team who have raised the bar."
In 2006, the Fighting Illini narrowly missed qualifying for nationals, the Orange and Blue posted a strong seventh-place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional, only 27 points out of third-place.
"The team mindset is evolving," said McRaven. "When I first got here, I don't think that guys could see that happening. They didn't see getting to nationals as a reality. Then last year I think all of a sudden we were 27 points out of third place at the regional meet and that got their attention. It got them to realize that getting to nationals is the next logical step," said McRaven.
In 2006 , the Orange and Blue took great strides in getting closer to achieving their goals. Departed senior Jason Bill, who made his third appearance at the NCAA Championships as an individual, led the Illini throughout the season.
Now with Bill gone, this year the Illini will look to senior Trent Hoerr and company to lead the way. Hoerr, coming off of a stellar track season, will be the frontrunner for the Illini.
"Obviously on paper Trent Hoerr, looks to be our top guy, after finishing 21st in the country in the 10K during the track season. He should be a legitimate threat to be an All-American," stated McRaven.
Sophomore Jeremy Stevens, who had a stand-out freshman season, capturing first place in both the Illini Open and Illini Challenge, will also look to be a top contributor for the Illini. Stevens, who is coming off an injury in the track season, is anxious to get back in the Illinois lineup.
"Jeremy is coming off an injury, but a healthy Jeremy, if we bring him up slowly, by the end of the season he should be right up there with Trent," McRaven added.
Jacob Nachel, who wasn't in the top seven for the Orange and Blue last season, had a breakout track season for the Illini. He ran the third-fastest 5,000m by a US under-20 athlete (14:19.10) and went on to finish fifth at the USATF Junior National Championships last season.
"We've got our frontrunner in Trent, who could be an All-American, and then guys like Jeremy and Jacob, who we hope will run right up there with him," McRaven said. "If those three guys can run where they are capable of running, then I think that we have a great front group, and it will be a matter of who else steps up."
Looking to be difference makers in the Illini line-up will be Mike Kelley and Justin Aronson. Kelley is coming off a junior season that saw him finish in the top four runners for the Illini four times throughout the season.
"Mike was our most improved guy last season," McRaven added. "He missed the track season because he had an internship with Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey. However, he trained really well while he was there. Part of his breakthrough in the cross country season last year was because he had a great summer of preparation and training in the off season and he's continued that and stepped it up a notch this summer."
Aronson also looks to be a contender for the Illini. Aronson's personal best 8K time of 25:25 came at the 2006 Saluki Invitational.
"Justin was probably the second most improved guy behind Mike Kelley," noted McRaven. "He made our roster for the Big Ten Outdoor Track Championships. He's a guy who could sneak in there and make a difference."
McRaven believes that the roster also consists of unknowns that could creep into the lineup and make important contributions.
"Jon Popejoy is a guy who has the potential to be a great contributor. He redshirted last year, along with Mike Murray and Jared Richardson," McRaven said. "We're looking to see those guys step and contribute."
Richardson made significant progress during his freshman track season for the Illini. He finished eighth in the mile at the Big Ten Indoor Championships and won the collegiate 1500 at the Kansas Relays.
Red-shirt sophomore Rob Pykosz and junior Tim Maier look poised to make an impact on the Illini program as well. Both have shown potential during their first couple years and McRaven feels that a great summer of training has laid the foundation for breakthroughs by both.
The six-member freshman class for the Illini includes standout Noble Schermerhorn and Eric Johannigmeier. Schermerhorn finished 11th in the IHSA Class AA Cross Country meet in 2006. Johannigmeier received All-State honors in the 1600m for his eighth place finish his senior year.
"Eric Johannigmeier has had a great summer and might battle for a travel spot," said McRaven. "Through our first meet, we will have a chance to how guys are looking and then kind of go from there."
Smith comes to the Illini after being part of the fastest cross country team in Carl Sandburg High School history. He received All-State, All-Sectional, All-Regional and All-Conference honors throughout his high school career.
With a bunch of newcomers and the experienced frontrunners, McRaven is excited to see that the pieces are coming together and the goals are within reach this season for the Fighting Illini.
"We have a high level of expectations, and now we are starting to bring in the kind of athletes that are competitors and are serious about having national success," said McRaven. "At Illinois, that should be the standard. That's what I'm looking for and that's what I see happening. The bar should be set high.
"Our guys know competing amongst the elite teams is doable, McRaven added. "When you start getting a taste of success, you want more and I think that our guys want to be contributors to our rise. It's within our grasp. Last season gave them a taste of what it's all about. Our guys want to turn this program into a regular at the national level. That's the reason why the young guys came here. They want to be part of the turnaround that gets Illinois to nationals in cross country."